Formed in Deptford, South London in 1974, Squeeze came to prominence in the late 70s riding on the new wave created by the punk movement.
Original members Chris Difford (guitar, lead vocals), Glenn Tilbrook (guitar, vocals), and Julian ‘Jools’ Holland (keyboards) named the band after a disreputable Velvet Underground album.
With the addition of Harry Kakoulli (bass) and original drummer Paul Gunn replaced by session drummer Gilson Lavis, Squeeze released an EP, Packet Of Three, in 1977 on the Deptford Fun City label. It was produced by former Velvet Underground member John Cale.
The EP’s title reflected the preoccupation of the band’s main songwriters, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, with England’s social underclass. It led to a major contract with A&M Records and a UK Top 20 hit in 1978 with Take Me I’m Yours.
Minor success with Bang Bang and Goodbye Girl that same year was followed in 1979 by two #2 hits with Cool For Cats and Up The Junction.
Difford’s lyrics were now beginning to show an acute talent in capturing the flavour of contemporary south London life with a sense of the tragi-comic.
This began to flower fully with the release of 1980’s Argybargy, which spawned the singles Another Nail In My Heart (UK Top 20) and the sublime Pulling Mussels (From The Shell).
The set was Squeeze’s most cohesive album to date, having finally thrown off any remaining traces of a punk influence, they now displayed some of the finest kitchen sink lyrics since Ray Davies‘ peak. The album also featured the band’s new bass player, John Bentley.
In 1980, Holland left for a solo career that included performing and recording with his band, Jools Holland And The Millionaires (which displayed his talent for the boogie-woogie piano style) and hosting the UK television show The Tube.
His replacement was singer/pianist Paul Carrack, formerly with pub rock band Ace. He appeared on the 1981 album East Side Story, which was initially planned as a double album with a side apiece produced by Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds.
McCartney had agreed but dropped out because he was still working on his own Tug Of War release. Several cuts were finished with Nick Lowe but the group weren’t happy with the results.
Eventually, the final album was produced almost exclusively by Elvis Costello – in tandem with engineer Roger Bechirian – except for the opening track, In Quintessence, which was the handiwork of Dave Edmunds.
Carrack stamped his mark on the album with his excellent performance on Tempted and with the success of Labelled With Love, a UK Top 5 hit, the album became the band’s most commercial to date. Carrack departed soon afterwards to join Carlene Carter’s group and was replaced by Don Snow (ex-Sinceros).
The follow-up LP, Sweets From A Stranger, was an uneven affair, although it did spawn the superb single Black Coffee In Bed.
At the height of their success, amid intense world tours, including selling out New York’s Madison Square Garden, Difford And Tilbrook dissolved the band. The duo continued to compose together, releasing an album in 1984.
The following year they re-formed the band with Lavis, the returning Holland, and a new bass player, Keith Wilkinson.
Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti was hailed as a return to form, and although not supplying any hit singles, the tracks King George Street, I Learnt How To Pray, and Difford/Holland’s Heartbreaking World stood out.
In 1987 Squeeze achieved their highest position in the UK singles chart for almost six years when Hourglass reached Number 16 and subsequently gave the band their first US Top 40 hit, climbing one place higher. 853-5937 repeated the transatlantic success, breaking into the Top 40 a couple of months later. The accompanying album, Babylon And On, featured contributions from The Soft Boys‘ Andy Metcalfe (horns, keyboards).
After the release of 1989’s Frank, which contained one of the most sensitive lyrics ever written by a man about menstruation (She Doesn’t Have To Shave), Holland departed once again to concentrate on television work. With Matt Irving joining as a second keyboard player, Squeeze released a live album, A Round And A Bout, on their old Deptford Fun City label in 1990, before signing a new recording contract with Warner Brothers Records.
The release of Play (1991) confirmed and continued Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook’s reputation as one of the UK’s finest songwriting teams, with Gone To The Dogs and Wicked And Cruel particularly resonant of earlier charms. Some Fantastic Place (1993) saw them reunited with A&M Records, although there was some critical carping about their insistence on a group format that did not always augur well for their more adroit and sober compositions.
Their strongest album in years was Ridiculous, showing them back to writing sharp, humorous yet provocative lyrics on the up-tempo tracks and poignant love songs on the ballads. The lively Electric Trains, for example, managed to make the unlikely pairing of Julie Andrews and Jerry Garcia in one lyric!
Grouch Of The Day cleverly delivered self-deprecating honesty, while the minor hit This Summer has the wonderful lyric: “nights we spent out of control like two flags wrapped around a pole”.
This was a tremendous set of songs that strangely missed the record-buying public by a mile, leaving many to wonder if they had fallen into cult obscurity in the same manner as those other outstanding craftsmen of the classic English pop single, Andy Partridge of XTC and Ray Davies of The Kinks. Like Davies and Partridge, Difford and Tilbrook were still writing perfect hooks and middle eights mixed with intelligent, interesting, and often bitingly accurate observations of life.
Following the demise of A&M Records, Squeeze issued Domino on their own Quixotic Records label. They displayed the material to the music marketplace in Cannes at the annual MIDEM festival in January 1999 by playing a blistering set. With little fanfare, the album was issued in the UK and proved to be yet another gem, rife with great songs and melody.
This version of Squeeze sounded as good as any previous incarnation, featuring Holland’s younger brother Chris on keyboards, Hilaire Penda (bass), and Ash Soan (drums). Stand-out tracks included the painfully observant tale of the result of family divorce, To Be A Dad, and the honest confession of infidelity, Sleeping With A Friend.
Difford and Tilbrook proved they could still write top-notch material from their hearts without pandering to musical trends. Sadly, these prized upholders of the great English pop song tradition disbanded Squeeze not long afterwards.
Tilbrook released his solo debut, The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook, in May 2001. Difford followed in 2002 with I Didn’t Get Where I Am.
Suqeeze returned after nearly two decades away for Cradle to the Grave (2015), a gentle, affecting collection of songs that showed that the songwriting partnership was still sturdy. This sun-kissed ode to getting away from it all with good company is as unapologetically warm as anything the band has ever recorded.
The new touring lineup of Squeeze is no nostalgia act. With Difford and Tillbrook firmly in charge, they’ve inventively reimagined their classics and brought passion and commitment to the new material.
Jools (Julian) Holland